HELENA — Leaders across Montana have talked about the need to get more people involved in the skilled trades. For Zach Allen, a program at Capital High School gave him a step up toward a career in the trades.
“I just always liked working with my hands,” he said.
Allen says he wasn’t that interested in four-year college, and Capital’s industrial technology classes showed him there was a path forward to a career in another kind of work. After graduating, he tried a plumbing job, then came on with Green Source Electric, headquartered in Townsend.
“Once I started doing electrical, it was something that really sparked my interest,” he said.
Allen is now a registered apprentice – about a year and a half into a four-year program that combines classroom instruction with on-the-job training under an employer’s supervision. Since starting, he’s worked on residential and commercial construction, in places from Helena to Townsend to Big Sky.
Green Source currently has three apprentices, with the first set to complete the program in the next two weeks. Owner Derrick Hedalen says he’s been impressed with Allen’s work.
“We just have a great group of guys, and they all get along and help each other with their schoolwork –and he’s excelling great in his schoolwork, which is the number-one hard block the apprentices run into,” said Hedalen.
Allen will complete his apprenticeship earlier than usual, because he was credited with 600 hours of training and a required math class from the work he did at Capital. An apprentice needs 8,000 hours before they can test to become a “journeyman” – a fully trained worker.
The Montana Department of Labor and Industry recognizes Capital’s program as a “pre-apprenticeship.”
“It’s giving students the opportunity to not only go out and see what the trades are like, but at the same time, if they decide to go in with the trades as a career, it will give them quite a bit of a leg up into their apprenticeship program,” said Mark Lillrose, program manager for DLI’s registered apprenticeship program.
Lillrose says around ten schools across Montana are now doing this type of pre-apprenticeship program.
Capital teacher Tom Kain says students learn welding, drafting, carpentry and other skills. They also get an introduction to more specialized work that the school isn’t equipped to teach full-time, like plumbing, electrical and heating and air conditioning.
“They leave our program knowing basic skills – they can read a tape measure, they can run tools – and that’s half the battle, is being able to read a tape measure and safely operate saws, drills, whatever you need to do to get the job done in your trade,” Kain said.
Kain said Allen is the first of his students to take the credit for his work at Capital into the apprenticeship program. He said, as they work to show students what’s possible if they enter the trades, that success is going to help demonstrate it.
“We have more kids climbing through the program, and we can use him as a good example of why,” he said.
Allen says he’s glad he made the decision to pursue trades education, and that he’s excited to be on the path to a good-paying career without having to take on debt.
“I definitely have a lot of my friends that graduated this year; I pushed them toward that,” he said. “They weren’t sure if they wanted to go to college, and so going into an apprenticeship or a trade job was my number-one suggestion for them.”
Montana leaders say the state’s registered apprenticeship program is growing strongly. DLI says the number of new apprentices has been growing for years: 183 in 2018, 286 in 2019, 381 in 2020 and 631 in 2021. They say they recorded 515 new apprentices and 41 new employer sponsors just in the first half of 2022.
Gov. Greg Gianforte’s administration has given much of the credit for the latest increase to a new state rule change. Previously, two journeymen needed to oversee each additional apprentice a business brought on. Last year, though, the administration announced plans to change that ratio, so one journeyman could supervise two apprentices. Leaders said in a statement that many of this year’s new apprentices and employer sponsors joined after the change took effect.
Gianforte called the old ratio “unnecessary red tape” that was limiting employers who wanted to offer more apprenticeships. At the first meeting of his new housing task force last month, he touted the new rule as an important step for the construction industries – particularly with the continuing demand for new home construction.
“These reforms help open the pipeline for more workers, and with more carpenters and plumbers and electricians, we can build more homes,” he said. “But there’s more we need to do.”
Hedalen says Green Source worked on more than 40 homes in the Helena area last year – around double what they had done in previous years. He said he’s seen a big increase in the number of people wanting to become apprentices, and he believes that shows the importance of the rule change.
“I would put an ad out for a journeyman electrician or master, and I would get ten apprentice applications to maybe one journeyman application,” he said. “Before the ratio change, we were maxed out, so we weren’t able to take a high school graduate or take anyone on – we needed two more journeymen to have one more apprentice. So I think the ratio rule change helps a lot of small businesses.”
But not everyone working with apprentices supported the change. Leaders with Montana’s Joint Apprenticeship and Training Centers expressed opposition, saying it could affect the quality of training – and possibly safety.
Bob Warren, an instructor with the Montana Electrical Joint Apprenticeship and Training Center in Helena, says they’ve been seeing strong growth in their program for seven years – and that’s continued even as they maintained a ratio of two journeymen to each apprentice.
“If we’ve got 500 new apprentices, that’s great, but let’s see where we’re at in two to three years,” he said. “Let’s see what the completion rate of all those people are – because work is good right now, but being from the construction trade in the last 23 years, I know it’s feast or famine. So what happens when work inevitably slows down? Are we going to be able to push all those people through? And if they aren’t pushed through, what’s going to happen to them?”
Warren also questioned whether DLI would have sufficient staff to handle enforcement, especially if the number of apprentices continues to grow so quickly.
“It was hard enough to get enforcement before prior to this change,” he said. “I imagine that’s just going to exacerbate the problem even more.”